Homonyms are words grouped together because they either sound the same, or are spelt the same, but have different meanings. Although common usage relies on the term homonym to describe all these varieties, in actual fact there are really three categories of words to describe them:
- Homograph — same spelling (as written down); different meaning (sometimes sounds the same).
- Homonym — same word (same sound and same spelling); different meaning.
- Homophone — same sound (always a different spelling); different meaning.
A true homophone is a word that sounds the same, is spelt the same, but has a different meaning. Dictionaries will variously state that homographs and homophones are also forms of homonyms. While not strictly true, I have to ask whether the distinction is really worth worrying about. However, for what it’s worth, going back to the original Greek, this is what the words really mean:
The Greek word homo means “same”; the Greek word graph means “written”; the Greek word nym means “word”; the Greek word phone means “sound”. Put all this together and you have: “same written” (homograph); “same word” (homonym); and “same sound” (homophone). The common thread here is that they all have different meanings. Despite this some words fall into two categories, which makes for a number of pedantic issues. And though each type is slightly different, common usage —quite sensibly — is to refer to them collectively as “homonyms”.
Here are a few random examples:
- Feat – notable act or deed.
- Feet – plural of foot; a measure.
- Fete – a festival
- There was a hole in the ground. (an opening)
- Use a whole number. He ate the whole cake. (the entire amount)
- I know what to do. I knew what to do. (having knowledge)
- You will do it now. (not later)
- The car is new. (not old)
- It was quite cold at night.
- It was very quiet.
- He quit his job and went to America.
- We went through the tunnel.
- John threw the ball to me. (past tense of throw)
- I went to town. I want to help.
- Too many, too few, too hot.
- You can come too. (meaning as well)
- You, too, are allowed to come. (meaning you as well)
- You two are allowed to come. (referring to both of you)
- The bad weather was a problem. (rainy, stormy, etc.)
- I don’t know whether he will help me. (meaning if)
- The book, which was torn, had to be replaced.
- The witch rode on her broom.
- I am going to wear a jacket.
- There were seven of them.
- Where are you going?
Here are some examples of words that sound the same but are spelt differently. And they have different meanings.
Caw, Core, CorpsComplement Compliment
Doe, Doh, Dough
Ewe, Yew, You
Flew, Flu, Flue
For, Fore, Four
Heal, Heel, He’ll
Meat, Meet, Mete
Pair, Pare, Pear
Pole and pole
Rain, Rein, Reign
Raise, Rays, Raze
Right, Rite, Write
Rose, Rose* and Rows
Row, row and row‡
Stalk and Stalk
Wail, Wale, Whale
Wound and Wound
*The flower, rose; and rose, the past of “to rise”.
‡Each meaning respectively: to argue; to row a boat; a row of houses.
By Nigel Benetton, science fiction author of Red Moon Burning and The Wild Sands of Rotar
Last updated: Friday, 24th April 2020